At last week's NT platform with Michael Billington, Nick Hytner made an interesting digression about the difference between the British theatre tradition and the director-led continental way of doing things. In Europe British plays are snapped up, but being a British director doesn't open many doors because directors here don't rule the roost in the way that they do in France or Germany. Across the channel, people go to see the latest Chereau or Stein production, irrespective of what the play is. Here the director mostly tries to put himself or herself at the service of the play rather than create a personal work of art using the play as raw material.
Well, Katie Mitchell, love her or hate her, is the big exception to the British way of doing things. She takes the text and uses her actors to build something quite unique. The results at the National have in my view been sometimes awful (Waves, The Seagull) and sometimes brilliant (Iphigenia in Aulis). So I went to the preview of Women of Troy not certain whether I would be fascinated, stirred or just irritated. In the event, I underwent all of these feelings in equal measure. As I left the Lyttelton, the audience seemed equally divided. As she did with Iphigenia, Mitchell uses Euripedes' play about the fate of Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra and the other Trojan women at the hands of their Greek captors to give us a clear and universal message about the cost of war; the core drama is so powerful, especially in Don Taylor's version, that it will survive almost any kind of directorial treatment. Bunny Christie's set places the captured women, clad in evening gowns, in a horrendous industrial warehouse with clanging metal lifts, portcullis-like doors and steel furniture. Above them we catch fleeting glimpses of Helen of Troy on an upper floor. There are bangs, crashes, explosions and fires, and other moments of hyper-realism involving a baby's body. At moments it was painful to watch, though some in the audience said it left them completely cold. Why was I irritated? At times it reminded me of Mitchell's highly successful reimagining of Iphigenia on the same stage about three years ago. But at times I felt I was watching a rerun of Waves, Mitchell's devised play in the Cottesloe based on the writings of Virginia Woolf. That involved lots of rather pointless busy action around the stage in which the actors pointed cameras and microphones at each other and created sound and visual effects. I thought it was a clever but sterile. Here we had the Trojan women repeatedly dancing around the stage to Benny Goodman-style swing music. Okay, but one flashback moment of this kind would have been enough. The endless creativity and movement on stage was no doubt the result of hours spent in improvisation in rehearsal, but I felt the text was getting smothered in the process. Much of the play was either inaudible or invisible because the action was taking place at the back of the dimly lit stage. Sinead Matthews is a terrific young actress, but though her performance as the mad fire-raising Cassandra is compulsively watchable, she seems to lack the vocal range to project her lines in a theatre as large as this. To put it bluntly, I couldn't hear what she was saying, and I was in the fourth row of the stalls. Anyone who has bought tickets in the front stalls is going to miss key moments, because Mitchell has placed a row of tables and chairs downstage, another device used in Waves. Obviously she's not particularly worried whether the audience can see or hear what's going on properly, and this I think is the key to my irritation. Theatre to me involves a relationship between the actors and the audience. It can involve hostility, playful complicity, sincerity or insincerity, but a play isn't a complete work of art until and unless that relationship across the footlights is created. Mitchell's productions seem to come from a theatre tradition -- perhaps continental, perhaps going back to Stanislavsky -- where the performance has its own validity, irrespective of the presence of an audience. In other words, the actors are acting for each other (or in France and Germany for those who subsidise them), rather than for those who've bought tickets to see them. The last Greek drama I saw was The Bacchae with Alan Cumming, and that production took a diametrically opposite approach, with Cumming using his spectacular entrance to address the audience directly and set up a relationship of dangerous complicity. That's not to say that Greek drama has to be done that way, just that I found it worked better for me. Mitchell's approach to Women of Troy reminded me of Rose Rage, Edward Hall's version of Shakespeare's Henry VI about five years ago. Some moments were just sensational, but the visual metaphor fresh meat being chopped up on stage to suggest a slaughterhouse was repeated so often that it lost all meaning. As the great Peter Hall (Edward's papa) says in one of his books, LESS IS MORE. That's possibly a motto that Katie Mitchell should ponder. The best moments in her production are the least busy. At the end, when the Trojan women are being shipped off to be slaves to their new Greek masters, one figure sits at the back of the stage and takes out her compact to fix her makeup, a gesture that carries enormous dramatic weight. But it was completely spoiled for me because the tables and chairs at the front of the stage prevented me from seeing who it was. I deduced it was Kate Duchene as Hecuba when I saw her at the curtain call wearing extra lipstick, but I felt enormously irritated by the way my vision of the stage was unneccessarily being interfered with. Am I being an old curmudgeon and refusing to cope with something on the grounds that it's difficult and takes me outside of my comfort zone? I don't think so. I quite like being challenged by the unfamiliar when I go to the theatre, but I don't like it when I get the feeling that the director seems indifferent to the audience, possibly even regarding them as gatecrashers at a private function. Katie Mitchell should spend a bit more time on the other side of the footlights.